Chicago-born filmmaker Rose Troche got her start in directing with her debut feature “Go Fish,” a lesbian romance that was a ’90s indie milestone. After “Bedrooms and Hallways” and “The Safety of Objects,” she felt a desire “to keep on working on things that didn’t take three years,” and began delving into directing hour-long television episodes of shows like “Six Feet Under” and “The L Word,” for which she also wrote. Daniel Minahan ended up writing “I Shot Andy Warhol” with Mary Harron after the two found there wasn’t enough footage of Valerie Solanas to make the BBC documentary they originally planned to put together.
After writing and directing his own feature debut “Series 7: The Contenders,” a battle to the death-style skewering of reality TV, Minahan was brought on to helm episodes of “Six Feet Under” himself by show creator Alan Ball, and has since directed installments of everything from “Deadwood,” “True Blood” and “Game of Thrones” to “Grey’s Anatomy.” Troche and Minahan joined by the New York Television Festival’s Terence Gray on a panel at IFP’s Independent Film Week to discuss going from filmmaking to episodic directing, how the two worlds differ and the nature of small screen collaboration. Here are some highlights from today’s event.
Directing a pilot can allow you to set the tone for a series. “If you can’t have your own show, it’s great to direct the pilot,” said Troche, who did just that for “The L Word.” “You end up in a position where you can control the look,” and get creative say while having a secure budget in place — “It’s the closest you get to make a film, that’s not a film.” There can also be a financial benefit to directing a pilot, including, depending on your deal, an executive producer credit.
There’s also “lead time, then the show gets picked up and you go on.” She mentioned that she’d like to write and direct her own show, but that that’s not always possible — “Sometimes you overextend yourself… once you pull youself into directing a show, you’re really pulling yourself out of overseeing the show. You can’t be two different people.”
The casting process comes into the forefront in TV. In terms of broadcast work, Minahan pointed out that “the casting process is really elaboritate — you see hundreds of people, everything’s done by consensus,” a reality that, he speculates, might explain “why network stuff tends to be middle of the road.” But while not handled in the same way, casting for premium cable shows can also be intense with, for Troche on “The L Word,” “a lot of convincing” and some volleying of “you don’t understand, but our audience will.”
Part of the scrutiny involved in the process is due to the increased level of commitment — on both sides, because as Minahan noted, actors are “signing away their exclusivity for the next few years.” This also means that “you spend so much more time with them” than in a film, per Troche, and “you get to know their quirks.” In that way, “I think it’s more like the model of theater,” added Minahan.
The writer is king. “The writer’s word is the word” in TV, said Minahan, and the writers are present on a show in a way that isn’t the norm in film. “It’s like having an extra brain on set,” he continued, though “you need to be adaptable” — “my job is to realize what they have on the pages.” “The only thing that bothers me, because I write myself,” added Troche, “is when a writer is [all] ‘not a word can be changed.’ We write these scripts in a truncated period of time. Mistakes are made. There should be more flexibility.” The writers’ room itself, she said, can be more changeable — they’d hire new people as they needed them on “The L Word” depending on the season arc or new characters, deciding “we need this voice on staff this year.”
The small screen can offer a larger scale. Minahan directed several episodes in the first season of “Game of Thrones,” and will be back to helm a few in the new season. In terms of scope, he said, “It’s certainly much larger.” The first time he came on one of the sets, he “was shocked” — it “was the size of a football field, it was a throne room, and I thought ‘Oh my god.'” “In season one, I cross-boarded three episodes, which means that you shoot three at one time. I will never do that again. I didn’t work for about four months after, I was so exhausted.”
The show’s big, and “there are many more background people, there are huge stunts and small stunts, and gore and blood in almost every scene.” His new fear for this season, he noted, is that he “just scouted Iceland, and it’s just lava and blobs for as far as the eye can see… okay, I guess this is good, we’ll see what it looks like in December when it’s full of snow and there’s four hours of daylight.”
TV isn’t everything. Both Troche and Minahan are working on film projects — Troche has “Xanadu,” written by Susan Austin, about a tomboy trying to win over the new girl in town, while Minahan’s on board to direct Alan Ball’s new screenplay “What’s the Matter with Margie?” “There is a parameter around television that can sometimes start to become restrictive to yourself creatively,” Troche admits, adding that when she was shooting a recent short film she felt she had to in some ways unlearn the visual language of television. But both were also clear about wanting their own shows, and they’re not alone in that — as Minahan pointed out, “All my friends who are indie directors are coming to me to pratice their pitches.”